“I just want to make this point,” Kat Bjelland told Minneapolis Public Radio 's The Current, speaking about The Babes In Toyland. “I didn't really think about purposefully making it all girls in a band. I wanted musicians who didn't know how to play very well, so then you can create a sound together. You know, all together at once,” she said in 2013, two years before the Babes in Toyland reunion.
“I played in bands with guys and stuff in Portland, and never really thought about it,” she said, “but boy, other people sure make you aware of it.”
“I don't feel helpless or anything,” Bjelland said in the documentary Not Bad For A Girl. ‘I don't feel like I have to be like, ‘I'm female and I can do this if I want to,' ‘cause, of course I can. I already know that, and I never felt being female hurt anything. If anything, it helped.”
Bjelland's work as a guitar player has inspired the founders of a legion of female fronted bands including Kathleen Hanna, who has said repeatedly that she started her band, Bikini Kill directly because of inspiration from a Babes in Toyland show. Hanna is quoted in notes for the latest B I T release, Redeux, saying,“Amazing. Life changing. I'd never heard anything like them and haven't heard anything since like them.”
Bjelland literally gave Hanna her props in the 2013 Current interview, saying, “Kathleen Hanna deserves a lot of props. She's a person who's really supportive towards the scene and making a scene, which is really admirable to me. Now there's a ton of women bands. It's amazing!”
The band's new lineup has played in more than a dozen cities since new bass player, 24-year-old Clara Salyer took over duties in Summer 2015, including a spot in Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival.
Since their 2015-2016 reunion tour, all three Babes In Toyland seem to have settled back in to the hometown they love; Minneapolis, land of The Replacements and Soul Asylum where they all have lived for years.
Salyer is a Mineapolis librarian who has played in five local bands there. Lori Barbero is a long time Minneapolis resident who once described herself as a ”Motel 8” of its local music scene. She and Salyer have known each other there for years.
Minnneapolis. It was the city's musical reputation that drew Kat Bjelland there specifically to start the Babes In Toyland.
“I wanted to move here because it seemed like all the good music was from here,” She said. She only had one friend in the city, but she liked Soul Asylum and The Replacements a lot and was listening to The Replacements' album Unsatisfied heavily at the time.
She told The Current that there were a lot of bands in San Francisco where she was playing before, but “they weren't tight-knit like here. You could just go down to The Entry and see shows.”
"I remember I went down to First Avenue -- I didn't know anybody -- and I would get a little bit drunk, and I saw Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), I decided to stalk him for a minute, and I went and kind of badgered him and I was like, "My band's gonna kick your band's ass." And he was so polite and nice, because he's so sweet, and he goes "Oh, ok, What band is it?" I go, "I' don't l have one yet, and It's gonna kick your band's ass."
She described the Minneapolis scene of the time as "super supportive." She told a story about meeting Kevin Rutmanis from the band The Cows, "I was playing this riff, and I couldn't play that well, but he was like, 'You got to get a band, we need more bands that sound like that.' It was like a family.”
Kat said in the interview that she writes songs all the time, that she continued writing throughout her hiatus from performing and that she had about an EP's worth of really good songs. She said she writes constantly on the piano, but doesn't record everything.
“Me and my friend Mike were talking about having a debut show at The Ritz Theater,” she said, “but I need to get a band together first. I have songs, and everything and I need a drummer and a bass player.”
“I don't really know how to go about it,” she said. ”I don't go out enough. I want a really heavy, good heavy drummer, like Dave from The Bastards, or whatever.”
She said the new project was still unnamed, saying lyrical content was a mix of her studies of herbology, “ghost-stuff, paranormal and then Hinduism and then my normal anger. And that all goes together.”
Redeux, released by The Babes In Toyland in 2016, was compiled and assembled by the band and spans their full career with selections from the four major Babes In Toyland releases: Spanking Machine (1990); To Mother (1991); Fontanelle (1992) and Nemesisters (1994). All have been out of print for years. It is the first compilation ever assembled by the band. It is the closest thing to new material that the reunited Babes have put out so far.
Bjelland's career as a guitar player, singer and songwriter spans most of her life. She asked her family for a guitar when she was in second grade, wanting an electric, but got an acoustic. She played a little bit of piano as a kid. Her uncle taught her to play the guitar and so did one of her boyfriends. As a teenager she played in a band in Woodburn with her uncle called The Neurotics -- a surf band.
Unlike the typical outcast childhood described by most musicians, Kat grew up pretty and popular. She was a cheerleader in High School.
She started her first band the Venarays, in Woodburn with some friends when she was 19. They moved to Portland together.
Kat was 19 when she bought her famous Rickenbacker 425 at a Portland Pawn shop, reportedly for $200. She has played it throughout her career.
The Venarays played rock with a 60s edge. It was a band Kat put together with her best friends from High School. She has said that the name came from the word, venary, meaning actively seeking out sex. The band began as something fun to do with her friends. It has been called it an all-girl band but there were actually two guys who played with them, drummer Dave Hummel and Jack Rhodes. Bjelland eventually quit and met Courtney Love and Jennifer Finch and they played in a series of bands together called “Pagan Baby, Sugar Babydoll, whatever.”
Bjelland met Love at The Satirycon in 1984 and asked her to start a band. Love couldn't play at all at the time. Finch and Love met previously.
Sugar Babydoll was Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love's first collaboration. Jennifer Finch, later of L7, who played bass was still in High School when they started. They originally used the same name as Love's previous band, Sugar Babylon which never got past the discussion stage. Sugar Babydoll moved from Oregon to San Francisco,
The last of the two Bjelland, Love projects, Pagan Babies, got together in late 1985 in San Francisco. It was pretty much a continuation of Sugar Babydoll , playing dream pop and new wave with a similar style. Janis Tanaka played bass. Diedre Schletter played drums. But Tanaka introduced them to Frightwig, which changed their ideas about music indelibly.
They practiced at Love and Bjelland's apartment in San Francisco and made a demo in Dec. '85 with the tracks “Cold Shoulders” written by Love and Bjelland. ‘Bernadine” written by Love, “Best Sunday Dress,” by Love & Bjelland, and “Quiet Room” written by Bjelland. They wrote a lot of other songs that are less clearly defined: “I see nothing, “Cold Than Me,” “My Angels” and All Roads Lead to”.
The band lasted through two shows at friends' house parties.
Bjelland started writing Frightwig-inspired songs. Some of them would later be used in Babes In Toyland. Love reportedly wanted to keep the band new wave dream pop and eventually left.
After Love quit, Bjelland, Tenaka and Schletter played one show at the Mabuhay Gardens as The Italian Whorenuns.
Italian Whorenusns was Kat Bjelland's last band before forming Babes In Toyland. They played a few shows and recorded one demo.
Their sound was punk and hardcore based, abandoning the dream pop new wave flavor of Sugar Baby Doll. Some of their songs were later reworked for The Babes In Toyland.
Bjelland left for Minneapolis to form Babes In Toyland. Tenaka went on to work as a session musician with artists including Pink and L7.
Kat Bjelland was 25 when she arrived in Minneapolis. She started the Babes within five months. “It was kind of my goal,” she told The Current.
The Babes played their first show at a skateboard festival, then played a couple of basement parties. “Then, we actually played The Entry and ended up headlining because I think we were supposed to open up for Frightwig and they got stuck at the Canadian border,” Kat said.
They got signed to Warner Brothers before Nirvana, before grunge. Their A&R Rep, Tim Carr, was the same one who signed the Beastie Boys to Capitol Records. 'It was just kind of cool and our A&R guy was not wanting us to change our sound or anything.
It was, sadly, Tim Carr's passing that first lead Barbero and Bjelland to get back in touch. They stayed in contact after that. Lori talked about it in the Chicago Tribune as the first step toward their reunion
“Our A&R man, Tim Carr, who was our fourth bandmate, pretty much, he died two years ago,” Lori Barbero said in 2016, “I called Kat to tell her, and we just started talking. From there, it kind of opened doors.”
Getting signed led to their first major label release, then to national and international tours. Bjelland talked about touring in The Current , "If you go on tour, for 22 hours it seems like a hangover, you don't feel good, and then one hour of total bliss, and the two hours afterwards, more bliss, it's kind of like, it's painful, but it's a necessary thing. Good Therapy. You Know? I have to do it. I do much better when I play and sing."
As the band became famous, the media paid a lot of attention to Bjelland's appearance, her typical style of wearing retro, baby doll dresses on stage and the contrast of that soft look with her hard sound. "Believe it or not, dresses are really good to wear on stage, they allow you to move your legs and kick and they're really easy to wear," she explained. This, and the fact that thrift store dresses were often high end and affordable.
It was a look that she continued to share with her one-time California bandmate, Courtney Love. As both of their groups gained attention, an almost media-contrived conflict emerged.
The feud between Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love is an urban myth. In every "wiki" type bio, and so many articles, always in stories about the Babes and never in stories about Hole, it will be mentioned that lyrics that appeared on Babes songs also appeared on Hole records, that at first it was said that they wrote them together when they were in bands together, but later, it was confirmed that they were written by Kat alone. Biographies talk about this, but Kat is never quoted saying anything about it in anything that can be found today. Neither one of them can ever be found directly saying anything even vaguely negative about each other, although they have done interviews saying that their feud is a myth. Bjelland was interviewed for the Hole Behind the Music on VH-1 talking about how it was her Courtney Love had called to spend time with her after Kurt Cobain's death.
Courtney Love was never in The Babes in Toyland.
Crunt, Kat's 1993 project with her first husband, Stu "Spasm" Gray of Lubricated Goat, went on simultaneously with the Babes making Painkillers, when Kat temporarily relocated to Seattle in the midst of The Babes' success. Moving to Seattle didn't last long. In 1994 they released an album Crunt.. In 1995 they divorced and Crunt broke up.
“I was going on Christmas vacation for a week (to Minneapolis)” Bjelland said. “And I never went back. I had to leave my person I was with.” She told The Current that she has been living in Minneapolis ever since.
Back in Minneapolis, the Babes continued to evolve and develop their sound and to tour through their final studio release, Nemesisters.
Interestingly, Nemesisters is defined in The Urban Dictionary as two girls who have had sex with the same guy, at any point in time. It has never been said that this had anything to do with the album's title.
Around 1995 Maureen Herman, the band's bass player for their four-year major label heyday, moved to Chicago. The idyllic era of the Babes In Toyland was ending.
According to Kat, "Maureen Herman was in the band and then she was living in Chicago. I think the traveling got a little hard and she quit. That's what happened, actually, and that made it hard for a while. And we kind of struggled on for a bit more. But you know, it ran its course." she said. 'I don't know how long we were together, but it was long enough. You gotta change it up a little bit and plus, I got married and had Henry so I wanted to concentrate on being a good mom,” she said in The Current interview."
"Our career was 17 years," Barbero told the Chicago Tribune in 2016 “Maureen was in the band for four. We did fine. She said her hip disintegrated, which, I don't know. but then we got (original bassist) Michelle (Leon) back, we had a few different other bass players, we weren't planning on breaking up.
Barbero stayed in Minneapolis for a while then, in 2008 relocated to Austin for 7 years, where she DJ'd.
After the Babes, Kat started Katastrophy Wife with her second husband, Glenn Matson. The band recorded two albums, Amusia and All Kneel, and a single, “Heart On”. All Kneel was never officially released because of ownership disputes.
Kat Bjelland played her last show before a more than ten-year hiatus from the stage with Katastrophy Wife at Grumpy's Downtown in Minneapolis.
About her role in the pervasive wave of female fronted bands of the 90s, Bjelland said it was “universal consciousness. Everybody gets the same idea at once.”
Minneapolis is full of modern devotees of The Babes and their female fronted rock and roll contemporaries. Two of them are Kitten Forever and Bruise Violet.
Kitten Forever opened for The Babes In Toyland at their January 2016 return to the First Avenue Mainroom, the club where they played their farewell show in 2001. Minneapolis Citypages described Kitten Forever as having "Godzilla bass and cheerleader vocals.”
Bruise Violet is a mostly teenaged (17, 17, 20), all-girl band named after the famous Babes in Toyland song. They play Babes covers mixed with their own originals in a unique blend of style. Before The Babes In Toyland's return to First Avenue, they interviewed BIT drummer Lori Barbero for The Current .
“It really shouldn't make any difference what gender you are whatsoever,” Barbero told them. “You just need to say, I'm a musician.”
She said she “never asked anyone” if they took her seriously when the Babes started, “and to be honest, I didn't ever care. Because in my heart and soul I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing and I as playing with Kat, because we quickly became close friends.”
“I didn't really care if anyone came to our shows or not, “ she said, “Because I was over the moon and just feeling fantastic about what I was doing. I was doing it for us, and not really anyone else.”
Lori grew up in Minneapolis. After going to High School in New York City, she returned to her hometown to work at a local punk bar, The Longhorn. A lot of the people who toured with the Babes, she said, were already people she knew before the band started. She was a self-described Motel 8 – everyone stayed at her house.
About Maureen Herman's second departure from the band, Barbero told the Chicago Tribune, "It's a business and people come and go. She's not the first bass player that's ever been fired, and she's not the last ....
She's not the original bass player of the Babes. She had quit before. There's personal reasons ....
She's not the original bass player of the Babes.” Barbero said. “No one knows anything unless you're there. There's two sides to every story. There's just reasons for things. Things don't happen because they were undeserved. It's not anything that Kat and I wanted to do. It makes me feel really bad -- it still makes me feel really bad.”
Of Herman's tech associates who originally funded the BIT reunion, Barbero told the Tribune in 2016, "They're really wonderful, and we are so grateful. They will always have a huge place in my heart. Kat and I have been working really hard for the past six, seven months paying back our debts to them, paying back as much as we possibly can. It costs a lot of money to get us together. We could've been making tens of thousands of dollars if we didn't owe these gentlemen a whole bunch of money. I've got $250 in my bank account but, I'm happier playing with the Babes, I don't care if I have a dollar or $100,000."
Barbero said she ran into Bruise Violet at the Triple Rack in Minneapolis the night she introduced Kat to current Babes' bassist, Clara Salyer.
Salyer replaced Maureen Herman on bass in Summer 2015. The 20- something librarian is a respected player on the Minneapolis local scene. Her style of playing has been described by Minneapolis Citypages as “freight train.”
Salyer told Citypages in a 2016 interview “I just wanted to do the songs justice.” She has played in a lot of Minneapolis bands including Whatever Forever, and put her current music projects on hold to begin touring with The Babes in Toyland.
She first found out about The Babes in the used record bin. “I was just blown away by how powerful (their) music was,” she said. At the time, she was listening to things like The Who and classic rock.
Salyer talked about getting ready to join the band. She put a lot of dedicated work into getting ready to play with The Babes In Toyland. She told City Pages she worked for 10 hours daily with headphones, learning the songs that she said are mostly comprised of a few simple parts, but take some unexpected twists and turns.
She said Bjelland is really into classical music, “and I think she takes from those darker composers for some of the more haunting, atypical transitions. I was obsessed with Stravinsky for a while so that's why we see eye to eye on a lot of things.”
“Whenever I can when I'm home” Clara Salyer said,”I'm practicing with two or three bands, It just makes me aware of my time and realizing I want to spend as much as possible doing music.”
The January 2016 return of The Babes In Toyland to First Avenue was their first hometown club show since their reunion.
The Babes trio spoke several times in 2016 interviews about writing and recording new material together, saying they hoped to record after the end of the reunion tour, though, at that point, they weren't thinking much beyond singles.
“I think we're going to be better with this one here,“ Kat Bjelland told Little Punk People, pointing to Salyer, “it's going to make us better. More creative. I don't know what the next record will sound like, but I'm pretty excited to record, only because this one – during reunion tour – all the old music, but I …
She brings something else to the bank instead of the old same old thing, so it's gonna be good. It'll make us more fresh, you know a new dynamic so I don't know what it's going to sound like – but I think it'll be kickass," she said.
“I feel like it will be a lot heavier – and maybe a – it's gonna be a lot slower – like heavier and slower," Barbero said.
“I'm just excited to see what they come up with,” Salyer added. “What WE come up with” the other Babes said at once.”
Babes In Toyland at St. Vitus in Brooklyn with bass player Clara Salyer